Fear of a Black President

Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul BY Eddie S. Glaude Jr.. Crown. Hardcover, 288 pages. $26.
The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America BY Michael Eric Dyson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Hardcover, 368 pages. $27.

The cover of Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul The cover of The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America

I sometimes think of Election Night 2008 as analogous to the first manned moon landing in 1969. Something that had seemed, just a few years earlier, imaginable only in speculative fiction had suddenly become real before our eyes. In both cases, an American achievement was celebrated by people around the world. Like Neil Armstrong’s “small step” on the lunar surface, the election of a black man to the highest office in the most powerful nation on earth seemed to expand human possibility. But within a couple of years, the public grew tired of moon shots and, after the sixth landing in 1972, NASA abandoned lunar travel. After all, what had walking on the moon done to improve life on Earth? It had certainly done nothing to help African Americans living in poverty. “A rat done bit my sister Nell,” Gil Scott-Heron wrote in his classic 1970 protest song: “I can’t pay no doctor bills / But Whitey’s on the moon.”

It’s impossible to know whether the landmark election of a black president will follow the novelty of the moon walk into the national memory hole. But some of the exhilaration of the 2008 campaign season began to erode as soon as Barack Obama assumed the presidency. He has since presided over an era of economic devastation in black America. What’s more, the age of Obama has witnessed the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and a grotesque series of killings of black Americans by white police officers in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Chicago, Obama’s political hometown, as well as by white private citizens in Florida and South Carolina. To many disappointed African Americans, having a black man in the White House has been as bitterly irrelevant as having a white man on the moon.

As President Obama enters the final year of his second term, one can assume that the debate over his responsibility—or lack thereof—for the current state of black America will continue for a long time. Two new books by prominent black thinkers offer fierce arguments both for the defense and the condemnation of Obama. Michael Eric Dyson and Eddie S. Glaude Jr. are what are known today as public intellectuals. Both are African American scholars and theologians. Both are associated with prestigious universities, Dyson as a professor of sociology at Georgetown, Glaude as a professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton. Both were protégés of Cornel West, the philosopher, theologian, erstwhile faculty member at Harvard and Princeton, and self-proclaimed prophet, who became the most public of intellectuals with the splash made by his critically acclaimed, best-selling book Race Matters in 1993.

West has come to incarnate African American displeasure with Obama. Like so many people, he was a bit of an Obamaphile in 2008, believing the charismatic young Illinois senator to be a politician who could somehow transcend politics. West soured on Obama sometime around January 20, 2009, Obama’s Inauguration Day. Since then, he has heaped scorn on the president, calling him (among other things) “a Rockefeller Republican in blackface.” West has been even more disparaging in his attacks on black intellectuals—such as his onetime student Dyson—who defend Obama, calling them (among other things) “cheerleaders and bootlickers for the president.”

In a 2014 Twitter exchange, Dyson asked Glaude—who remains in West’s favor—to respond to their former mentor’s derogatory words: “I hope that you will here say to @CornelWest that ad hominem attacks on me (prostitute, sellout, liar) are wrong and not arguments.” Glaude responded: “That’s fair. He should offer an argument as to why he has drawn that conclusion about you.” Ouch.

Both Dyson’s and Glaude’s new books are ambitious attempts to capture the meaning of a turbulent era that began with the collapse of the US economy and the election of a black chief executive—in that order. Before 2008, cynics would have imagined those turning points coming in reverse order. In Dyson’s The Black Presidency, the title character is an extraordinarily complex hero: “Obama lives with a burden and possibility that no other black person in our history, perhaps in world history, has ever had to shoulder.”

The president is not the specific subject of Glaude’s Democracy in Black. A distinctly polemical work, it nonetheless offers compelling portraits of a number of African Americans. Obama is only one important figure among several in the book, but there’s no doubt about who the villain is. Glaude writes in his introduction: “Obama reminds me of Herman Melville’s Confidence Man: he sees exactly what we want and what we fear and adjusts himself accordingly.”

Dyson, the author of eighteen books—including I May Not Get There with You (2000), a boldly unsentimental exploration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.—is clearly an insider in Barack Obama’s circles. He points out that he has “twice served as a presidential surrogate for Obama and has known him for nearly twenty years.” In 2007, Dyson was at Oprah Winfrey’s “palatial estate” along with 1,500 other guests, but he was at the elbow of the brightest star: “After the fund-raiser Chris Rock cornered Obama and me at dinner.” That same year, when Obama’s campaign plane touched down in New Orleans, Dyson was there at the airport to greet the candidate: “I would endorse him on a pleasant July night before a Superdome crowd of some twenty thousand fans.” Presumably he means Obama fans.

But Dyson is able to break out of the insularity of Obama’s inner circle to provide a sweeping yet nuanced view of the racial ramifications of this presidency. One of his more incisive points concerns “two archetypes in black America: the prophet and the politician.” Prophets—from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson—speak truth to power. Politicians, like Barbara Jordan and Harold Washington, pursue power and seek to exercise it. With his ascension to the presidency, Obama, in Dyson’s view, supplanted King, an event that symbolized “the passing of the torch of ‘most important black man in history’ from the prophet to the politician.”

President Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, June 26, 2015.
President Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, June 26, 2015. Lawrence Jackson/Official White House Photo

One of the curious aspects of Obamamania circa 2008 was that the more the radiant candidate let us know he was a shrewd politician, the more his believers took him to be a prophet. In Democracy in Black, Glaude sounds like someone who drank too much Hope-and-Change-flavored Kool-Aid: “We should have known better. Nothing Obama said actually confirmed the belief that he was some progressive savior. . . . Many progressives willfully ignored who he was, because we so desperately wanted someone to deliver us from the political sins of our times.”

Deliverance from sin is a heavy cross for any elected official to bear, particularly in the political and social landscape Glaude depicts. He writes that he wants to show how “the value gap (the belief that white people are valued more than others) and racial habits (the things we do, without thinking, that sustain the value gap) undergird racial inequality, and how white and black fears block the way to racial justice in this country.” Glaude makes a powerful case that, since “the country’s very Constitution dictated that a slave should be counted as three-fifths of a person,” the value gap “was baked into . . . the foundational principles of this country.”

Small wonder, then, that white America’s Great Recession turned into what Glaude calls “The Great Black Depression.” Glaude movingly recounts the stories of individual African Americans victimized by predatory lending practices and foreclosures. He brings to life the human catastrophe behind these grim statistics: “African Americans lost 31 percent of their wealth between 2007 and 2010. White Americans lost 11 percent. . . . According to the Pew Research Center, by 2011, black families had lost 53 percent of their wealth. . . . One out of three black children grows up in poverty while only one out of ten white children lives in poverty.”

Glaude slams the president for not aiding black people directly: “He replies to claims that he ought to develop a specific policy agenda to help African Americans with a quick dismissal: ‘I’m not the president of black America. I am the president of the United States of America.’” For Glaude, Obama’s stance is a result of “fear of white fear.” And “most black liberals,” he claims, “have refused to criticize the president,” partly out of the same cowardice.

In fact, Dyson, a black liberal, strongly criticizes Obama for rejecting black-targeted policies while upbraiding blacks with lectures that ooze moral reproach. In Dyson’s summary, Obama’s talking points go something like this: “Stop complaining about racism, turn off the television and the video games and study, do not feed your kids fried chicken for breakfast, be a good father.”

If, during his first term in office, Obama’s scolding rhetoric pandered to white voters, the tactic didn’t do much good. Mitt Romney won a landslide victory among whites in the 2012 election: 59 percent to 39 percent. And, as The Nation reported at the time, the Romney juggernaut was not an exclusively red-state phenomenon: He won 53 percent of the white vote in California and 52 percent in New York. Even back in 2008, white America backed John McCain for the presidency with a 55 percent majority.

Still, the full breadth of Obamaphobia was unknowable on Election Night 2008. Dyson provides a succinct sketch of the affliction in these two quotations: “Former New Hampshire governor John Sununu wished that Obama ‘would learn how to be an American,’ while former House speaker Newt Gingrich labeled Obama the ‘most dangerous president in modern American history.’ ” Gingrich attended the infamous Inauguration Day dinner in 2009 where he, a Republican political consultant, and a group of prominent GOP senators and congressmen decided on a strategy of monolithic obstruction of any and all of Obama’s legislative initiatives. When Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress in 2010, new Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell announced that his party’s “most important” goal was to make Obama a one-term president.

Yet Glaude summarily dismisses Republican obstructionism as “a red herring.” He holds Obama to an extremely high standard. Early on in Democracy in Black, he makes the convincing point that “the primary reason we don’t have a European-style welfare state is because the programs are seen to benefit black people.” But later he faults the Obama administration for caving in to “defeatist attitudes” when it came to instituting single-payer health-care reform in the US. “At some point,” Glaude writes, “we will have to ask ourselves: Was his presidency worth it all?”

In Glaude’s eyes, the antidote to Obama’s uselessness is the rise of grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter, which has seen “young people engaged in acts of civil disobedience to disrupt the traditional theater of America’s racial politics.” Youthful black activists are already in post-Obama mode. As Tef Poe of Hands Up United says, “I voted for Barack Obama twice and still got teargassed.”

Dyson raises a disturbing question about the “resurgence of white terror” in the Obama era: “Could it be that unarmed blacks who were dying across the nation were urban proxies for the black presidency and the change it had brought? Those who can’t aim a gun at Obama take whatever black lives they can.” The president’s fabled eloquence has often failed him during the rash of racially charged murders. But Dyson suggests that the horror of the slaughter of nine black Americans in a Bible-study meeting in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, has liberated Obama to speak candidly about race. In his soaring “Amazing Grace” eulogy for Clementa Pinckney—a pastor and a politician—in June, Obama said: “As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves.”

Dyson clearly sees Obama’s speech-sermon as a moment of redemption: “All the promise of hope and change that his presidency had pointed to, but continually frustrated, now seemed possible again because he gained the courage to be at his blackest when he was at his best.”

Glaude, meanwhile, has given up on the US presidency altogether. He proposes a novel collective action for the 2016 election. He wants to mobilize black voters to show up at polling stations and “leave the ballot blank or write in ‘none of the above.’” Glaude breezily admits that his “Blank-Out 2016 campaign” could be considered “electoral nihilism,” resulting in a Republican presidency, an impermeable right-wing Supreme Court majority, and the destruction of Obamacare. But so be it. Glaude imagines a larger purpose in his kamikaze strategy: “I want to remake American democracy, because whatever this is, it ain’t democracy.”

It ain’t? Compromised principles, the corrupting influence of power, the good of the people thwarted: These have been features of democracy since the Greeks and the Romans. “Yes,” a dejected Obamaphile said to me during the 2012 reelection campaign, “but Barack was supposed to change all that.” It was raining outside that evening. “Do you think Obama could do something about this weather?” I asked.

Insider status has its privileges: The centerpiece of Dyson’s book is an Oval Office sit-down with the president. “I’ve got to put together coalitions that allow me to get legislation through a House and a Senate that results in a bill on my desk that I can sign into law,” Obama explains with more than a hint of exasperation. Finally, the steely politician puts the public intellectuals in their place. “I have to appropriate dollars for any program which has to go through ways and means committees, or appropriations committees, that are not dominated by folks who read Cornel West or listen to Michael Eric Dyson,” Obama says. “I don’t always have the luxury of speaking prophetically.”

One remembers that before his current job, this enigmatic man wrote a couple of pretty good books. It might turn out that the most significant account of the first black presidency will be written by Barack Obama.

Jake Lamar is the author of a memoir, six novels, and a play. He lives in Paris, where his latest book, Postérité, was published by Rivages.